Further thoughts on Libya

Here is some reaction to some recent developments on Libya and the ongoing confusion over what the mission is, exactly. (Following on my previous questions on Libya.)

Barack Obama, presumably speaking for the United States (until Hillary Clinton decides to muddle the message):

Now, just as there are those who have argued against intervention in Libya, there are others who have suggested that we broaden our military mission beyond the task of protecting the Libyan people, and do whatever it takes to bring down Qaddafi and usher in a new government.

Of course, there is no question that Libya -– and the world –- would be better off with Qaddafi out of power.  I, along with many other world leaders, have embraced that goal, and will actively pursue it through non-military means.  But broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.

Incidentally I generally liked the speech, outlining as it does a flexible policy that incorporates a reluctance to dedicate too many resources to this kind of humanitarian interventionism. I largely agree with what Michael Tomasky says about it in the Guardian. Nonetheless, it is worth noting the perhaps unavoidable inconsistencies. In the same speech, Obama says:

Joining with other nations at the United Nations Security Council, we broadened our sanctions, imposed an arms embargo, and enabled Qaddafi and those around him to be held accountable for their crimes.  I made it clear that Qaddafi had lost the confidence of his people and the legitimacy to lead, and I said that he needed to step down from power.

So which one is it? Does Qadhafi absolutely need to go (I agree in principle, but it's not part of the UN mandate although some beg to differ — see below)? Do you achieve that by killing him and his family (what I would support to get this done as quickly as possible), or negotiating with him? More on this at the end of this post.

David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy see it differently:

Britain and France have demanded that Muammar Gaddafi should stand down immediately and declared that the era of the Libyan leader is over.

On the eve of a conference on Libya in London, to be attended by more than 40 foreign ministers, Britain and France made clear they expected Gaddafi to face justice after launching attacks on Libya's civilian population.

Britain and France have clashed in the past week during the negotiations which led to an agreement to hand all aspects of the military campaign – the no-fly zone, protecting civilians threatened by Gaddafi's forces and enforcing an arms embargo – to Nato. But the two countries are keen to ensure pressure is maintained on Gaddafi by reminding the Libyan leader that UN security resolution 1970, passed last month, gave the international criminal court the authority to investigate the regime's attacks on civilians. The ICC is investigating whether war crimes have been committed.

Qatar joins France as the only country recognizing the Libyan rebels as the legitimate government:

Qatar has become the first Arab country to recognise Libya’s rebel national council as the representative of the North African nation, easing the way for the opposition to profit from oil sales on global markets.

Over the past two days, rebels have seized control of the bulk of Libya’s oil industry – including the country’s largest oilfields in the so-called Sirte basin and the main terminals – as they have pushed back Muammer Gaddafi’s forces with the assistance of Nato air strikes.

A Libyan opposition leader said that Qatar had also agreed to sell oil on its behalf in international markets – although Qatari officials were on Monday unavailable to comment on any such deal. But Washington made clear that opposition oil sales need not be subject to the sanctions imposed on Libya.

However, US Treasury officials cautioned that the rebels would have to create a payment mechanism that did not involve the Gaddafi-controlled National Oil Company, the central bank or any other government institutions.

The Qatari news agency said that the national council, which until now has only been recognised by France, had “practically become the representative of Libya and its people”.

Qatar is also supplying the rebels with fuel as supplies run low.

Russia is not happy:

Russia has expressed concern that the Nato coalition is going well beyond its UN mandate, as rebel forces and allied air strikes focus on the same targets.

Under the terms of UN Security Council resolution 1973, agreed 12 days ago, UN members are entitled to take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians under attack in Libya.

In the immediate aftermath of the resolution, Britain, France and the US specified they wanted Muammer Gaddafi to pull his forces out of the towns and cities of Misurata, Benghazi and Ajdabiya. In the past few days, however, Nato has attacked pro-Gaddafi forces elsewhere, notably around Col Gaddafi’s stronghold of Sirte, the target of a big rebel push.

Russia was quick to voice concern on Monday that the action of the past two days had gone beyond the protection of civilians. “There are reports – and nobody denies them – of coalition strikes on columns of Gaddafi’s forces; reports about support for actions by the armed insurgents,” said Sergei Lavrov, foreign minister. “We consider that intervention by the coalition in what is essentially an internal civil war is not sanctioned by the UN Security Council resolution.”

And what if the rebels won't negotiate with him, in the case of a stalemate on the ground? Brian Whitaker argued against negotiations in a Guardian debate yesterday:

Amid repeated claims that Libya could turn into another Iraq or Afghanistan, there are growing calls for a negotiated solution. Such talk at the moment serves no purpose, apart from throwing a lifeline to the Gaddafi family and helping them maintain their grip on the country, or at least some of it.

Calls for negotiation are predicated on the idea that the situation in Libya will reach a political/military impasse. It might do, but it hasn't yet – so there is no need to start behaving as if it had.

A more likely scenario, though, is that the Gaddafi regime will implode suddenly and fairly soon – in a matter of weeks rather than months or years. We should at least wait to see if that is what happens. Hardly anyone in Libya seriously believes in the leader's eccentric Green Book ideology, and most of those who currently support him can be expected to abandon him once they perceive that he is on the way out.

So the effect of negotiations at this stage would be to help the Gaddafis salvage something. That certainly seems to be the aim of the leader's son, Saif al-Islam, who has reportedly been trying to interest the US, Britain and Italy in a "transition plan". Not surprisingly, Saif's plan envisages Saif taking over from his father for a period of two to three years, while Libya is transformed from a revolutionary jamahiriyya into a liberal democracy. In the meantime, all the Gaddafis – despite their crimes over the years – would be granted immunity from prosecution.

No one would like to see Qadhafi survive this war. But is a call against negotiations a call against:

  • A negotiated exit for the Qadhafis, by which they get safe passage to Venezuela or Sudan or whatever state wants them?
  • Negotiations with the remnants of the Qadhafi regime once the family is mostly dead or gone?

And: 

  • Will the rebels be willing to negotiate with the Qadhafis? Will the rebels be willing to stop their ground attacks on Qadhafi-held towns should the Qadhafis decide to declare, for real this time, a unilateral ceasefire?
  • Will the rebels be willing to negotiate with remnants of the regime — for instance what if (the notoriously bloodthirsty, etc.) Musa Kusa is left behind by the Qadhafis? 

Right now, it's make-it-up-as-you-go-along. Maybe that's inevitable, but for the taxpayers financing this military adventure it's unnaceptable and undemocratic. What I'd like to see, as someone who reluctantly supports military intervention to prevent a massacre in Benghazi (but would prefer that it was carried out, even less efficiently, by the Europeans and Arabs rather than drag in America) is a few clear delimitations:

  • A timetable by which the rebels have to secure their territory or drive out Qadhafi — Whitaker above says give it time before negotiations, but how much time? One or two months?
  • A clearer end goal: the French and British have the merit of being clear about Qadhafi's survival not being acceptable. But then what is being done to secure that as quickly as possible? If he can't be killed or arrested, then they should be working on exile somewhere and ICC immunity. But pretending that this war isn't fundamentally about getting rid of Qadhafi is dishonest and confusing. 
  • A commitment not to deploy ground troops of any kind into Libya, ever — even if not doing so means the rebels lose.

Maybe today's conference in London will produce greater clarity. In the meantime, the terms of reference of this operation need to be seriously scrutinized.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.